Who Do You Think You’re Talking To? Transgender Representation on the Television Show Transparent

Rowden, Carmel
Sissons, Helen
Graham-Davies, Sharyn
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Master of Communication Studies
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Auckland University of Technology

Despite increasing visibility, members of the transgender community continue to experience discrimination and exclusion in many areas of public life. This marginalisation could be ameliorated by more, and better quality, television representations of transgender people. Such representations have the power to increase understanding around gender diversity and challenge transphobic attitudes. Negative representations can further stigmatise transgender people. Media representations of transgender people need to be evaluated closely, with a focus on whether they are progressive, or unhelpful, in order to promote equality.

Transparent (2014-) is an American television show that revolves around Maura Pfefferman, a recently retired professor and newly transitioned trans woman, and her three adult children. The show has largely been well received by the press and viewers for its treatment of trans issues, its strong queer themes and unconventional storytelling style, but it has also had some criticism. This show is significant in that it is one of the first on American television to feature a transgender character as its main protagonist. Past scholarship around Transparent has taken several approaches but none focused solely on the transgender themes addressed by the show or how these reflect or deny transgender lived experiences, which this thesis attempts.

The present thesis research has sought to identify if the television show Transparent is a progressive depiction of transgender realities. It has been guided by critical discourse analysis, which has the goal of analysing language and discourse to reveal ideology and structures of power and oppression. Scenes were analysed for linguistic and thematic features and compared with records of trans people’s experiences. The analyses led to the conclusion that while the show Transparent is largely progressive in its depiction of transgender issues and realities, it is unrepresentative of typical transgender experiences in the USA, given the show’s focus on a wealthy, white, trans woman who has experienced almost none of the barriers to health care, education, safety and justice that are characteristic of the trans experience.

This research provides a meaningful contribution to media studies and the rapidly growing field of transgender studies. It is unique in its methodological approach of using positive critical discourse analysis, and in its aim to closely analyse the treatment of transgender themes rather than review the show in its entirety. It contributes in a novel way to the contemporary discourse around transgender people in society and their representations in the media. Future research might look at other important transgender issues raised by the show Transparent or utilise a similar methodology to analyse other examples of transgender representation. As new representations continue to be produced, the opportunities for critical analysis motivated by a wish for social equality are great.

Transgender , Representation , Television , Transparent , Queer , Media
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